El Salvador’s three main gangs have responded to El Salvador’s national emergency over the coronavirus with a threat. They’ve added to the fear Salvadorans feel about the disease’s quick spread and the uncertainty caused by governmental measures by forcefully imposing a curfew on communities living under their control. Anyone caught breaching quarantine in the neighborhoods where gangs enforce their own law systems will be punished despite the government’s security policies.
The state of exception that the Salvadoran government decreed more than two weeks ago has disrupted the gangs’ main source of financing: Extortion. The two factions of Barrio 18 — Surenos and Revolutionaries — have agreed to stop demanding money from a large percentage of the informal vendors that they often harass. Meanwhile, the Mara Salvatrucha-13 plans on continuing collecting these fees — known as “la renta” — despite the fact that sources inside the gang acknowledge the mandatory quarantine and are aware that the closing of businesses will make it difficult for them to collect any money.
For this story, El Faro spoke with national leaders of the MS-13 and the Sureños faction of Barrio 18, as well as with two gang members of the Revolutionaries faction. It also spoke with transportation workers, informal vendors, a police commissioner, and obtained several voice notes sent by the different gangs to Salvadorans living in the areas they control. In these messages, the gangs are threatening any neighbor who walks around the streets for any reason other than buying food. If caught outside, individuals will have to “deal directly with us,” they warn.
According to a “ranflero” (a national leader) of MS-13, the organization has established opening and closing times for shops in their neighborhoods. The gang will only allow one member per family to go food shopping. Whoever breaks this rule will be beaten or killed. Barrio 18 imposed the same measures.
The gang members who spoke to El Faro claimed that their decisions rose from a coordination between the three criminal structures and that the rules will be applied at a national level. Despite the reduction in homicides that El Salvador has experienced in the last year, the gangs’ enormous territorial and social power remains intact, thanks to the terror citizens in the nation’s poorest areas feel. These are the same areas where these groups have the greatest power and where they commit most of their crimes. The threat hits El Salvador’s poorest families the hardest, most of whom do not have permanent jobs and who depend on informal sales or temporary jobs to survive.
“What has been said to (the gangs’ leaders) is that we must first try to raise awareness among people using good and nice terms and if they don’t understand the first time, then we have to paint a picture for them. Salvadorans are known for understanding only when ugly terms are used. Every clique knows that they’re first told the nice way, and then, the next time we have to address them, words are not going to be used,” said an MS-13 leader, the gang’s designated spokesman.
The members of the three criminal organizations assured El Faro that their rules are intended to support the government’s measures. Their reasons are diverse: One of the gang representatives argued that they were not convinced that hospitals will treat gang members in case the epidemic unleashes its worst scenario in El Salvador. Another said that, with these measures, they want to prevent an increase in police presence in their neighborhoods. The MS-13 representative said each organization will establish schedules to make sure that a member of each family can go out and purchase food. “After six in the afternoon, we don’t want to see anyone, anyone on the streets,” he said.
On the afternoon of Monday, March 30, El Faro received from a confidential source two audio messages. Both recordings were from gang leaders addressing members of their cliques. From the first recording: “We don’t want anybody in the streets, not even for work. People going out to buy goods are the only ones with permission to be out. Got it? But they can only go out for that, to shop, and then they need to go right back home, because if we end up finding someone in the streets.”
In the second recording, attributed to the Sureños faction of Barrio 18, the warning is repeated: “If people don’t want to get on board and hear what we’re saying about what’s being asked, and they don’t give a shit about the protocols the government is calling for, we’re going to be forced to act, if they don’t give a shit about our orders, then we’re not going to give a shit about enforcing our decisions…”
The representatives of the two criminal organizations are basically arguing that people are vulnerable, and the police forces are not capable of the social control they’re seeking. As the MS-13 representative put it, “If the contagion gets into the prisons, all of our people are going to die… Plus, if there are no ventilators, and one of us is intubated, in grave condition, and all tattooed, and then there’s an old woman who’s in grave condition, they’re going to pull the tube out of the gang member and let him die… There are checkpoints in the streets, but not in the communities. There are patrols, but, when the patrol cars leave, everybody goes out in the street to party. But, for good or for bad, we get respect.”
The member of the Revolutionaries also boasted of the profound control they exercise over their territories: “They won’t be able to tell us that Pedro’s leaving the house to buy something, and then José’s leaving the house, too, because we know who lives together and who doesn’t.”
The Virus is Upsetting the Extortion System
A police commissioner, who asked to remain anonymous, also confirmed that there has been a decrease in extorsions: “The reports confirm it. We have practically zero this month. Of course, the quarantine is affecting it all, they have a harder time leaving, but charging extortion is principally local, they don’t need to move beyond their neighborhoods. Almost all crime has gone down: theft, robbery, homicide is practically over, fewer people are going out in the street.”
Representatives of two public transportation unions also confirmed that during the coronavirus emergency their workers have not been paying the “renta.” The gangs “are still asking for it. What some owners have done is reach an agreement and delay payment, because there’s not money now,” said Genara Ramírez, the president of the Salvadoran Bus Entrepreneurs Association (AEAS, in Spanish), a union active in Soyapango and Mejicanos neighborhoods—which are both under tight control of the gangs.
Over the last three weeks, the government has ordered a series of measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus: the closing of borders and the airport, the state of exception and a monthlong national quarantine. The measures were accompanied with the wide deployment of the army and police. At the same time, some cliques have stopped extorting transport service providers. Those businesses are now worried about what will happen after the emergency passes.
Miranda, president of the Federation of Passenger Transport (Fecoatrans), also confirmed that these weeks they are not paying extortions. “Since there’s no cash, it doesn’t make sense to go out and ask for it. Hopefully they’re not keeping records and we’re going to have to pay it all afterwards,” he commented.
On Sunday, March 29, El Faro spoke with two taxi drivers in the center of San Salvador and asked about extortion fees. Both answered that they had to pay fifteen dollars a day, but that nobody from the gang that controls the area has showed up to ask for the monthly fee. One of the drivers said that no gang member has given him any “official information” about a waiving of the fees. “I’m waiting, I’m saving it up, because I imagine that sooner or later they’re going to come to take it. They’ve got to be hurting for money now, too,” he said.
A representative of the Sureños faction of Barrio 18 explained that, under the circumstances of restricted mobility and the risk of contagion, the gang has issued orders to its members to suspend the collection of extortion fees, which is the principal means of income for the criminal group. The MS-13 representative said that they haven’t made any decision, and, for now, are continuing to charge the illegal fee.